Q. I went on a Caribbean cruise last month and loved it. Then I got home and a friend berated me. She said cruise ships dump waste and spew pollution. Is this true? And is there even such a thing as a guilt-free vacation? -- Catherine M., Herkimer, New York
A. It's difficult, sometimes, to know what to think. It's no secret the cruise industry has taken its lumps over the years for its environmental record. But it now seems eager to tout its eco-friendly practices. Holland America, for example, debuted a system on one of its ships last year that uses sea water to "scrub" its emissions. And the industry in general promotes its efforts to treat wastewater to minimize the impact it has on the oceans. But is this genuine environmentalism, or are these companies merely greenwashing?
It's a blurry line, and no matter how you cut it, massive cruise ships create a huge amount of waste -- about 30,000 gallons of sewage per ship per day. In the States, the ships can legally dump that waste straight into the ocean once they are three miles from shore, and most run on unregulated diesel engines. So where does that leave us as eco-conscious consumers? Some people might suggest that we should reward the larger commercial cruise lines that seem to be adopting green practices as a way of encouraging them to be as eco-friendly as possible. My feeling is, why send your business their way when there are so many smaller, more environmentally friendly cruises you can choose from?
I called M.J. Kietzke, an eco-travel agent of the Travel Specialists, and asked if she knew of any earth-friendly cruise options. She had multiple suggestions, including locally owned charter sailboats, "live-aboard" boat trips for scuba divers, and even a mail boat that visits isolated towns along the Norwegian coastline. Some Galapagos cruises will put part of your money toward island conservation. "These boats are small," says Kietzke, "so they don't generate the waste that a large ship does." For even more ideas, visit the site of the International Eco-tourism Society at ecotourism.org, where you can search for a travel agent who specializes in eco-tourism, and browse through a selection of vacations around the globe that meet the society's guidelines for sustainable travel -- including those trips that directly benefit the host communities.